Magnificat I

1 Samuel 2
Luke 1.46-55

As part of the long-running Radio 4 comedy show, I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue! Contestants are asked to sing the words of one song to the tune of another, something like singing the words of We'll Meet Again to the tune of What Shall We Do with The Drunken Sailor.

The Christian equivalent of this deliberately gruesome ordeal, for contestants and audience alike, is Jane Austen's worldly, vain, wife seeking, insensitive, simpering Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice singing The Magnificat.

Austen was writing about a Church of England just before the Wesleyan revival and decades before the Oxford Movement which had completely lost its way, all passion spent after the turbulence of the 17th Century, its clergy made up of the younger sons of the gentry, its worship dull and its social conscience residing in the good works of clergy wives.

How far have we come since then? Well, Archbishop William Temple (1942-44) had a good deal to say about social justice and we did publish Faith in The City in the teeth of the Thatcher evolution; and we have met austerity with food banks.  On the wider front, our Church was part of the "Make Poverty History" movement and we are loyal to Christian Aid. But how does that match up to the Magnificat?

Let me concentrate on three propositions:

I must say, I really haven't witnessed much scattering of the proud; indeed, when I attended General Synod it was rather like attending a gathering of the proud. Most people, including me, thought rather a lot of ourselves and, more often than is even intellectually, let alone spiritually, healthy, we each thought we had the right answer, not even showing the mutual concern and respect called for by secular, liberal political theorists. And we spent our time doing what the proud do, which is making human institutions with which to fence in our God. You will notice that none of the accounts of Jesus' mass feedings mentions any sort of barriers to entrance but the rule making of the Church of England is equal to that of the European Commission but with this difference: free markets need regulation but open churches don't. All of which might explain why the Church tends to cosy up to the proud rather than doing any scattering. Individually, the monarch and her bishops might all be jolly decent people but they are, collectively, the proud. And this is why I insisted on the whole of 1 Samuel 2 being read, rather than just Hannah's prayer, because we need to see how easy it was for the priests to slip into bad habits.

As for putting down the mighty from their seat, all Christian Churches, the Latin West, the Orthodox East, the American South, have all supported the mighty against the humble and meek; with the exception of the monasteries and the orders of Friars, the poor have had a bad time from Christianity: even in the last 100 years, the Vatican has tried to suppress Liberation theology and support murderous dictatorships on the ground that they were bulwarks against Communism; the revived Russian Orthodox Church has expressed its gratitude to President Putin by putting its full authority behind his oppression; and Christians in the South of the United States have promoted the prosperity Gospel, opposed all social reform, supported the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico and supported the dismemberment of families.

And while we have done nothing quite so bad, our sin is the great Christian sin, the sin of silence. I know, it's easy to run out of time to complain about all the injustice in the world and all the dictators; you could spend your whole life doing it! But the question we have to ask ourselves is, why should we not spend our whole lives doing it?

Then there is the most familiar problem, the poor and the rich, the hungry and the over-filled. This is where we try our hardest because it makes most practical sense: we recognise hunger more readily than oppression; we know how to deal with this as individuals and as a church community. When Jenny Brown issued her Daily Bread challenge a couple of weeks ago, we all immediately knew what she meant; we all consume too much and could do with less.

But no matter how virtuous all this is, and no matter how virtuous we are, this is not the point. What Mary is promising in Jesus phrase "Good news for the poor" is something much more radical. Jesus was not some wispy, spiritual, child-like figure, the "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" but was the last in a long line of Jewish prophets preaching social and economic justice and promising that the Messiah would deliver on these promises. Which, in turn, means that as a Church we should deliver on these promises and that is the important phrase: as a church. Haven't you noticed how most of our Archbishops of Canterbury start out really well in this area and then run out of steam? Is it because they get trapped in the establishment they vow to overthrow?

Recently there was a great sketch on the radio where a Labour candidate spoke to a voter who said: "We are apolitical" to which the Labour candidate replied: "But isn't that a Conservative poster in your window/" To which the voter replied: "Yes, as I said, we're apolitical". This is just another version of the maxim that we should not mix up religion with politics which is just another way of saying that we should keep everything as it is - denying that keeping the status quo is as political as demanding change - with the rich and powerful at the top and the humble and meek and the hungry at the bottom, not least because, as a society, we increasingly view poverty, disability and mental illness as the fault of the sufferers who are all scroungers and ne'er-do-wells. As a society we are arguing ourselves out of any socio-economic responsibility for the worst off at home and overseas.

It is so bad that, although it is my favourite prayer, I sometimes think we should stop saying the Magnificat to save us from our dreadful hypocrisy.